Horses Helping Humans
By Amelia Simpson
Photos by Mariana Schulze
“Something beautiful always happens here!” Andrea Gaines says of her Horse, Heart and Connection workshops with an exuberant smile. Winston Churchill said it best when describing our connection with horses: “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” Andrea Gaines spends her time in Ojai making sure as many people as possible experience that important connection.
Gaines, an accredited Equine Facilitated Learning teacher, studied with Wyatt Webb, author of It’s Not About the Horse, and considers him a mentor. Additionally, Gaines uses her history as a life and wellness coach and fitness instructor to bring substance and wisdom to her sessions.
Natives of Chicago, Andrea and her husband, George, were initially drawn to Ojai when they attended couples’ workshops hosted by David Deida and Michaela Boehm. The couple fell in love with the town and soon moved west. They enrolled their son in The Thacher School and made Gaines’s lifelong dream of owning and living with horses come true when they purchased their farm house.
Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL) exists on a parallel field to the more widely known Equine Therapy. Gaines expands, “Equine Facilitated Learning is a method for achieving personal growth that uses horses on the ground (typically no riding), to help develop the ability to connect and communicate in the subtle, non-verbal realms. This connection often moves the participant to have an epiphany or to delve into their past to unleash blockages, coming to a place of mindfulness and calm which enhances their everyday lives.”
EFL usually takes place as an unstructured interaction between the horse and participant. The horse is at liberty in a large corral, which allows the animal to choose to interact with the person or not. In comparison, Equine Therapy is generally more structured and specifically used to help people with PTSD or others with real therapy needs.
Horse, Heart and Connection workshops are held at Gaines’s private ranch in the East End of Ojai with her trusted equine partners, Red and Flash. The ranch is surrounded by orange orchards with stunning mountain views and an old-fashioned barn, creating a peaceful and serene environment.
“I always start off Horse, Heart and Connection workshops by asking each person what drew them to the program and what they want to get out of the session with my horses,” she says. “Then I lead a group meditation to help everyone settle in and create trust within the group.”
Guests can expect to spend about 15 minutes of solo time in a large corral with one of the horses. They are asked to have a question or an intention before they enter, and to take time to let the interaction unfold naturally. Gaines explains, “Horses are honest, and their reactions can give us insight into our true feelings and the hidden parts of ourselves.”
In the Horse, Heart and Connection sessions, Gaines facilitates the interaction in the corral with the participant and the horse. The guest is asked to just wait and see what happens as they walk around the corral with the horse. They can sit down, pet the animal, even on the odd occasion lay down with the horse. The guest is then asked to reflect on what happened between them and the horse, and share their reflections with the group.
“Often, people have a lot of fear of these large animals,” Gaines shares. “I ask them to stay centered and use their breath as a way to relax the nervous system while I facilitate their way to learn something about themselves.
“Once we had a woman who was terrified of all animals in general. When this happens I often will have a person put their hands on the horse until they feel comfortable enough to close their eyes and breathe deeply, getting a sense of calmness.”
Many of these sessions are full of emotional breakthroughs as the horse provides profound insight into communication. Participants begin to see patterns of learned behavior that may be working against them.
“Some people hold a lot of emotions inside,” Gaines explains. “Being with horses can really crack people open. I saw that happen to a woman who while in the arena with the horse, spontaneously started crying, letting it all out. She lay on the ground sobbing, while the horse came up to her and nuzzled her, sweeping the length of her body with his nose. She trusted him, and she stopped her crying. Once she began petting him, the horse pulled on her shirt to tell her it was time to get up.”
Gaines holds a few workshops a month with between one to six people in each session which last between two to three hours.
Gaines has also developed a program directed towards high school students to help them discover the emotional intelligence that horses offer. Gaines provides a safe environment for teens to connect with horses and explore issues they often face such as: boundary setting, self-confidence, esteem building, responding without reacting, and cultivating their intuition.
Witnessing such dramatic, positive changes in her participants in the areas of confidence and self-assuredness keeps Gaines passionate about her work. “My intention in doing this work is to help people expand and slow down enough to be open to inspiration and in turn be able to inspire others. Mindfulness and being in nature inform us and help us to remember that we are more than just our mind and our thoughts.”
For more and to book a session, visit horseheartandconnection.com